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Raymond Bisha

American composer Elliott Carter was born on December 11th, 1908. That he is alive is either an accomplishment, or good fortune – probably some of both. That he is still composing is incredible. Carter was born the same hear Ford released the Model T, and has known practically every major composer from the mid-20th century on. Apparently he composed more than 40 new works between the ages of 90 and 100, and is still going strong. His upcoming birthday was brought to mind by an email I received from New Music Concerts in Toronto, who are planning a 102nd Birthday Concert for Carter at Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre (Canadian spelling) on December 10th.

The Birthday Boy, Elliott Carter

At the time of this writing, Carter plans to travel to Toronto to attend the event. He and New Music Concerts Artistic Director Robert Aitken are old friends. Carter has been to Toronto many times, and 42 of his pieces  have been peformed there, which brings me back to this upcoming concert.

In the email I received from New Music Concerts, they list the works being played in this concert, which I have copied here:

Performers:   Rick Sacks; Patricia Green; Max Christie; Fujiko Imajishi; David Hetherington; Virgil Blackwell; Robert Aitken; New Music Concerts Ensemble

Figment V (2009)* for solo marimba
Poems of Louis Zukovsky (2008)* for soprano and clarinet
Tre Duetti (2008-2009)* for violin and cello
Concertino (2009) for bass clarinet and ensemble (World Premiere performance)
Nine by Five (2009)* (wind quintet)
Flute Concerto (2008)*
* Canadian premiere

Look at the dates for these pieces. This is an entire program of works he has written in the past three years!

I so wish I could be there for the event, but I am in New York at the time. However, for anyone interested in Carter, or this concert, I have some good news. CBC Radio will be there recording the event for future broadcast, which means it will eventually be available from their website – I will pass on more information about that broadcast when I get it.

If you want to hear an extended interview with Elliott Carter, here is one that composer Paul Steenhuisen did on November 10th, one month shy of Carter’s 102nd birthday. This podcast gives a real sense of his music, and also his personality. I can’t recommend it enough. Paul Steenhuisen does a terrific job of giving a sense of Carter’s music, and the context of his life.

Finally, Naxos has many CDs of Carter’s music — available from Naxos through ClassicsOnline, including a CD that New Music Concerts made called “Carter, E:  100th Anniversary Release”. Seeing this CD reminded me of how deep his friendship with the folks in Toronto runs.

I also suggest listening to Carter’s five string quartets, recorded by the Pacifica Quartet. Each quartet was written about 10 years after the previous one, so it gives a sense of his musical development over five decades.

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Raymond Bisha: Naxos Director of Media Relations, North America

Last week I went to see a rare production of Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 opera “A Quiet Place.”   This run of six performances at City Opera is the first time “A Quiet Place” has ever been performed in New York, which surprised me. As a non-native New Yorker, I naively assumed that everything Bernstein ever wrote must have already been performed in New York at one time or another.

After seeing the opera performed, I began to understand why it has been rarely performed. Not because it isn’t good – quite the contrary – but because 1983 audiences may not have been ready for the story that Leonard Bernstein and his librettist Stephen Wadsworth put before them. Stories, or even operas about dysfunctional families are nothing new, nor are theatrical works that begin with someone’s death. But challenges mount in an opera that begins with the mother’s death, then looks, in a series of flashbacks, at a dysfunctional family that includes a son who is both gay and mentally disturbed. Add to that, the stylistic and technical challenges of Bernstein’s music. Bernstein throws at them – singers and orchestra alike – music that is  lyric, angular, almost tonal, dissonant, sweet, angry, ironic, sometimes in quick succession, sometimes all at once.

Louis Otey (Sam, the father) and Patricia Risley (Dinah, the mother)

Bernstein and Wadsworth were not trying to provoke any particular kind of reaction in the audience. In an essay by Daniel Felsenfeld in the opera’s program booklet, Stephen Wadsworth says “We (he and Bernstein) tried to tell the truth about the way one American family does and does not communicate, and what happens as a result. We were both working on loss and grief and justification and seemed to share a kind of acerbic, flared-nostril humor.”

In the end these issues of family communication are surely something that anyone in a family can understand. So why was last week’s audience cheering for an opera that got such a cool reception in 1983? The fact the City Opera did a terrific production of course helps.

Joshua Hopkins (Junior)

But I would like to think that almost 30 years after it was first performed, we can now see a character like Junior, who is gay and mentally disturbed, first and foremost as a person. If you can do that, the story of this opera is deeply affecting. It also makes the final aria incredibly powerful, as Junior and his father finally connect for perhaps the first time. When I talked with baritone Joshua Hopkins, who played the character of Junior, he described the ending as “optimistic, the beginning of what was now possible.” A beautiful description of a reconciliation that is set to some of Leonard Bernstein’s most ravishing music.

It helped that the orchestra under conductor Jayce Ogren dealt with the huge stylistic range of the score with ease, and the cast to a person had both the voices and the acting chops to make this piece work. The music and the story often walk a fine line between irony and parody – get that balance wrong and you undermine the entire story. There are also some screamingly funny moments in the opera that were allowed to be hysterical, without ever undermining the other emotions at play.

Patricia Risley (Dinah), Judith Christin (Susie), and Victoria Livengood (Mrs. Doc)

In the end, this production did for me what really good theatre should  – it is sticking with me. The sad parts. The funny parts. The images and music for sure. But most of all, the story.

Here’s to hoping that other audiences won’t have to wait decades to have their chance to experience “A Quiet Place.”

What are your impressions of the opera “A Quiet Place” upon seeing or hearing it?

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